Many children with behavioral, developmental and sensory challenges have difficulty maintaining a quiet alert state for learning. These children tend to be low registration (miss important sensory input) and/or sensory sensitive (overly responsive to functionally irrelevant sensory input) the majority of the time. The Sensory Profile is a reliable, valid assessment that can be used to determine if children have significantly different sensory modulation. It is important to help children with significantly different sensory modulation to learn to monitor and regulate their arousal levels and maintain a quiet alert state for learning. Colors can help children understand their sensory modulation level by using Blue to designate hypo-responsive, green an optimal quiet alert state for learning, yellow a hyper-responsive, and red an extreme hyper-responsive state.
A visual support integrating colors, energy levels, and sensory modulation can help children learn to identify and modulate their arousal levels. Children are encouraged to work with the teacher or therapist to identify their common feelings and actions when experiencing various energy levels.
A simpler alternative is to make a High, Low and Medium Energy visual, and have children identify their arousal level and whether their current energy level feels O.K. or not O.K and why. Some children learn better using the visual supports shown above, while others do better without it through only adult modeling. without it can be used to teach children to modulate their arousal levels. For example, the therapist might model by saying, “I am high energy and feel not OK, because I’m too hyper to be a good teacher. My heart is beating really fast, I’m breathing fast, my hands are shaking, my arms feel tight like raw spaghetti, and I’m talking fast and loud. I’m going to do 10 pushups to lower my energy level”.
For some children high energy is their only problem, while others experience low energy as well. For low energy children I model “I’m low energy and feel not OK because I don’t have enough energy to be an exciting teacher. My heart rate and breathing feel slow, my arms are soft like over-cooked spaghetti, and I’m talking slowly and soft. I feel sad and dead inside. I’m going to do do 10 fast jumping jacks to increase my energy level”.
As children develop, yellow can be added to designate a slightly hyper-alert state that precedes the red hyper-arousal state in which they misbehave. This is helpful because early recognition of high energy is easier to control. They can also be encouraged to use colors to relate their most frequent arousal level accompanying their feelings. The student who constructed the feeling wheel shown below depicted sad and lonely as low energy; embarrassed as high energy; and frustrated & mad as very high energy. In addition, happy & nervous were depicted as related to both average energy and high energy states.
A general FAB Strategy for helping all students modulate their energy levels is to first decrease, then if needed gradually increase sensory input. This is depicted below using a visual support that shows a student who frequently fluctuates between a low energy and high energy state, with only a small window of quiet alert functioning. In a classroom the teachers response would involve first lowering the noise level and visual distractions for a dysfunctional high energy or low energy student. This alone will often enable students to achieve a quiet alert state. If they are still not in a quiet alert state, give graded input from the lowered sensory level in a predictable, socially acceptable way until a quiet alert state is reached.
Once the therapist is able to vary environmental input to enable a student to reliably achieve a quiet alert state, they can help the teachers, parents and student to do this independently.
Therapists and teachers can expand their understanding of arousal levels by synthesizing theories of the Autonomic Nervous System, sensory modulation, influences of early childhood PTSD, and Bipolar Disorder to expand their understanding of arousal level challenges. The focus is on helping children notice when they first enter the blue or yellow zones, so they can find ways to increase or decrease their arousal levels as needed.
Students can use colors through visual supports, modeling, and/or using the smells of the scented color markers to learn if they are in the blue, green, yellow or red arousal zone. This understanding provides a foundation for developing individualized coping strategies to manage their arousal levels.